In early May, Jonathan Slinden was watching the weather, and neighboring Meeker County farmers starting to plant their crops.
While he was preparing to plant his roughly 1,000 acres on mostly rolling hills, Slinden also was already appreciating the sight of crops growing in parts of his fields.
“The covers are taking off with the heat this week,” Slinden said May 5, of his 80 acres of cereal rye cover crops.
Planted outside of Grove City, Minn., the cover crops had done well with preventing erosion during a wet spring — and showed more growth than most of his other four years of using them.
“When I was planting [May 24], I was a little fearful about how tall it was because it can get tough to kill,” Slinden said three days later about his cover crops.
Slinden has long had an interest in cover crops, reduced tillage and other conservation practices. Financial and logistical challenges, however, delayed the transition until he reached out to conservation staff co-located in Litchfield, Minn., with Meeker Soil & Water Conservation District and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.
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Through a “locally led” conservation approach with the SWCD and NRCS, Slinden started cover cropping and using less tillage.
Cost-share programs through Meeker SWCD and NRCS have helped Slinden start using soil health practices and finding the most feasible and effective ways of doing them, said Joe Norman, district technician for Meeker SWCD.
Slinden is good at identifying issues on his fields and actively seeking resolutions, Norman added.
“A lot of producers can recognize issues, but have trouble taking action to resolve them or maybe don’t know where to start,” Norman said.
Slinden also keeps strong relationships with his landlords and encourages them to install erosion-control practices and enroll less-productive areas into the federal Conservation Reserve Program, Norman said. Overall, Slinden has helped get about 50 acres converted into native prairie through CRP.
Slinden said he tries to figure out better ways of handling unproductive spots in fields, which can involve taking them out of production and put into a conservation easement. It helps the environment and farm operation.
“My overall yield gets better on paper because I’ve eliminated the bottom half,” he said.
Norman said he thinks Slinden eventually would have started experimenting with cover crops and reduced tillage without financial assistance, but the cost-share and technical help from NRCS and SWCD allowed him to incorporate these practices with less financial risk. It also ensured the practices were installed appropriately.
Aside from cover crop cost-share programs, Slinden also has used the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through NRCS to secure $6,000 to help buy a strip-till bar.
“EQIP is an excellent tool to assist producers with the cost of installing practices to meet their goals,” said Jacob Stich, the NRCS district conservationist who worked with Slinden at the Meeker County field office.
Overall, Slinden said he hopes to eventually convert all his family’s crop acres to strip tillage or minimum tillage, as well as diversify his crop rotation. With cover crops, Slinden has focused on finding the most affordable and efficient ways to use the practice in his family’s operation.
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Most of the land operated by the Slindens features rolling topography, with coarse soils on the hilltops and rich, black soil in the dips. Slinden aims to raise the same number of bushels of crop with less equipment, fuel, fertilizer and other ag inputs.
“Strip tillage allows me to reduce the number of tillage passes and apply less fertilizer,” Slinden said.
He also uses nutrient and pest management; has planted pollinator habitat for monarch butterflies; and has moved away from using deep tillage.
Slindens have had farms in the Grove City-Atwater area of Meeker County — an hour west of the Twin Cities — since the 1870s. Just west of Grove City, where U.S. Route 12 runs aside railroad tracks and grain elevators, Slinden keeps his farming headquarters on his parents’ homestead overlooking Lund Lake.
More than a decade ago when he graduated from college, Slinden started a different but related career path, working for three years as an agribusiness grain merchant, a job that moved him three times. Slinden knew he wanted to get back to Minnesota and, with strong corn prices in 2012, that became a reality when he rejoined the family farm.
Slinden’s now in his 10th year of farming in Meeker County, where his transition into soil health practices is not the norm. About 6% of the county’s farmers reported using cover crops in USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, with about 26% saying they use no-till or reduced-till.
Matt Anderson, a Meeker SWCD conservation technician, met Slinden a few years ago when he helped certify Slinden for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. That voluntary program by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognizes farmers using and maintaining approved farm management practices that benefit water quality.
“He’s very conservation-minded and he’s always open for trying new things.” Anderson said. “He’s very conscious about reducing erosion when it presents a problem.”
Meeker SWCD honored Slinden and his family as its 2021 Outstanding Conservationists of the Year. Slinden and other conservationists from across the state were honored in December at the annual convention of the Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts (MASWCD).
Slinden, who is in his sixth season with cover crops, used cost-share from Meeker SWCD for his initial three years of cover cropping at the maximum 40 acres per year. In the second and third year, he added 40 acres of cover crops through federal cost-share under the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and did additional acres on his own.
After the SWCD cost-share ended, Slinden continued using CSP cost-share for 40 acres each year. In 2021, he was able to use cover crops on his largest acreage yet, 200 acres overall, thanks to a $5,000 grant from his MAWQCP certification that he put into 120 acres of cover crops.
For this year, Slinden has reduced his cover cropping to 80 acres due to increased costs and limited availability of herbicide. CSP cost-share will be used on 40 acres for the final time, but Slinden plans to continue using cover crops on his own in 2023 for 80 to 100 acres.
Boosting soil health
Some local farmers have shown interest in Slinden’s strip tilling and cover cropping. Others have asked if they could share his phone number with farmers who might want to learn more. Slinden is always interested in talking about it. It’s a tough transition for many farmers, because a lot have that tillage mindset with their fields.
“They’ve always ripped it in the fall, and then they’ll dig it in the spring,” he said.
Yet Slinden, who serves as a board member for Central Counties Co-op and the Meeker County Corn Growers, said he thinks cover crops are starting to catch on with farmers, and the cost-share available helps significantly with the transition.
“What I always tell people is, there’s a lot of free money if you want to try it out — so why not?” Slinden said.
Financial concern, Anderson said, often is the main reason interested farmers don’t transition into soil-health practices.
Slinden started gaining interest in soil-health practices about six years ago, after attending an area field day featuring the SoilWarrior and strip tilling 22-inch rows. He farms with a cousin who grasped reduced tillage before him and bought strip-till equipment.
Slinden now owns a strip-till bar for doing his own fields thanks in part to $6,000 in EQIP cost-share he used to buy the equipment that he will use for a fourth season this year.
Last year, Slinden strip tilled about 700 acres – about 70% of his family’s crop acres – focusing on soybean stubble going into corn, and applying anhydrous ammonia at the same time last fall for nitrogen. It’s a little time-consuming with only 12 rows at a time, he said, but he believes in the practice.
Short-term expense, long-term gain
Driving his side-by-side in late May onto his 40-acre parcel with cover crops, Slinden stopped where the field has a sharp, downward slope. He pointed out a nearby fence line where about 3 feet of soil has eroded over decades. At the bottom of the hill, wet spots have been regular challenges, sometimes causing equipment to get stuck. Cover crops, though, seem to have lessened the equipment’s burden.
“I think it has helped with some of the wet spots that, in the past, I haven’t been able to plant or get through,” he said. “Now I can at least get through them.”
Cover crops seem to be improving the soil, Slinden said. He has found those covered fields to have developed more little soil pebbles or aggregates, and they’re “not so fine and slimy.”
“You can definitely tell there’s more tilth [soil structure] to it,” he said.
Standing in his field, Slinden wondered if it will be as productive this year as the neighboring conventional crop field. However, he quickly noted that, unlike some farmers, he’s not looking for immediate results. He’s looking at the next 20 years for building organic matter and overall soil health while reducing soil erosion on his fields.
“It’s a short-term expense,” he said, “but a long-term gain.”
Ruzek is the water plan and outreach coordinator for the Mower SWCD-Cedar River Watershed District.